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Book Review "Leaving Earth", and "Genesis" by Robert Zimmerman

Joseph Mack

jmack (at) wm7d (dot) net

Mar 2004

Table of Contents

1. Books by Robert Zimmerman
2. Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel
3. Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, the first manned flight to another world

1. Books by Robert Zimmerman

Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel
Robert Zimmerman 
Joseph Henry Press, 2003
ISBN 0-309-08548-9 (hardcover)
Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, the first manned flight to another planet.
Robert Zimmerman
Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 1998
ISBN 1-56858-118-1 (hardcover)

I bought these books after meeting the author at the Mid Atlantic Star Party in Oct 2003, where he gave a presentation on the various space programs. I heard him again when he came to Raleigh, NC, in early 2004, to give a presentation to the Raleigh Astronomical Club (RAC) and the following weekend at Astronomy Day sponsored by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and RAC. I (along with the rest of RAC) had dinner with Zimmerman and was able to ask all the questions that had come out of reading his books.

Zimmerman writes in a clear style. He has an encyclopedic memory, speaks quickly and has all information available at instant recall. Here's the Zimmerman Bibliography.

2. Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel

The book describes the Russian space station program from Soyuz through to the demise of Mir and the beginnings of the International Space Station. Sufficient technical detail is included for the enthusiast to understand the implications and consequences of the design of the various space vehicles and the actions of the humans involved. Much of the information is new to me, not being reported in the western media.

Of interest were

  1. the technical aspects

    The Russian program was designed to test whether a human could voyage to Mars, function in gravity on arrival (the problem being loss of bone density in zero gravity) and return. Each leg of the trip would take over a year and the Russians gradually increased the length of time in orbit, to simulate the time of the outbound leg and to show that the cosmonaut could function in gravity on arrival at Mars (stand up unassisted on return to Earth).

    Acheiving this goal involved heroic (and boring) levels of exercising on a treadmill (2hrs/day). One of the cosmonauts, near the end of his time in Mir, impressed visiting cosmonauts, by still having legs like tree trunks. On talking to the author, I find that the problem of bone loss is only in the weight bearing bones (hips, legs), the arms increase in bone mass.

    Needing to simulate a 1.25yr trip where they wouldn't be re-supplied, the cosmonauts were left much to their own devices to organise their work and fix problems (i.e. crises). They often only communicated with the ground a couple of times a day. Mir and the Soyuz for-runners were constantly in need of repair. For the cosmonauts, handling what in space were lifethreatening failures, became routine, demonstrating that a self maintaining trip to Mars was possible.

    By contrast to the self directed cosmonauts in the authoritarian Russian program, the freedom loving American astronauts (and later the international space station) were instructed minute by minute on their tasks.

    Human factors were a big problem, many crews not getting on well. Although the requirements for assembling a working crew didn't take too long to figure out, political considerations often overruled the sensible choice of team-mates, with the result that many crews were disrupted by constant personal problems.

    Scheduling and expectations from the ground crews aggravated the personal problems, as most of ground people had not been in space and had no idea of the difficulty of doing the simplest thing in space. A major problem was keeping track of 'stuff'. Tools put down for a minute, drifted off and would eventually be found against the fan filters and would be put away and forgotten. Over several years, with continual resupplies, so much 'stuff' accumulated, that cosmonauts would often take hours to find a tool in the packed storage bins.

    Early space craft were designed like a military plane, with high-G bucket seats. The form-fitting chairs, in which you sat 'down', were useless in zero gravity, where there is no 'down' and were replaced by bicycle seats. The cosmonauts fatefrom restaurant-like tables. The long distance to the cosmonaut's mouth allowed food and liquids to spread over the inside of the craft (which was also assaulted by the occasional volley of vomit and other digestive effluvia from sick cosmonauts). The table was replaced by a baby's high-chair type shelf. The panels of bumpy switches and dials were replaced or covered with panels with soft spongeable plastic, which could be wiped clean.

    Because of zero gravity, blood and fluids ascend to the head, the cosmonauts faces visibly swelled and their heads always felt congested, like they had a cold. The feeling of having a cold never went away.

    I didn't know what they did with all the human wastes; I'd assumed they vented most of it, but I didn't know. (Vented materials would form a fog of ice around the space craft.) All the urine was electrolysed, using power from the solar panels, the hydrogen was vented and the oxygen used for breathing. Thus all the oxygen the cosmonauts breathed came up in the space tankers in the convenient form of water.

  2. Russian politics

    The politics of the Russian space program is described. Having also just read 'Genesis' on the Appolo 8 trip, also by Zimmerman, I don't remember which part of the politics were in which book, but the politics is described from Krushchev, who was doing it for prestige and to hell with safety for the cosmonauts, through to Yeltsin, who was managing a country in deep financial problems and who used the space program (with a cooperating Bill Clinton) to make money.

    Because of the secrecy within Russia, the citizenry never saw the mistakes visible to the rest of the world (strings of rockets blowing up on launch pads) and so assumed that it was all easy and were never impressed by acheivements in the way the rest of the world was.

    Interestingly much information is given about Yeltsin and his ascendancy and actions. In the US press, Yeltsin is portrayed as erratic and undependable, while Gorbachov is portrayed as the leader who freed Russian from communism. Zimmerman portrays Yeltsin as a highly principled freedom fighter who took great personal risks to take Russian away from the autocrats, and Gorbachov as an ineffectual leader, who only added layers to the corrupt bureaucracy in an attempt to stop the corruption, actions which only hastened the demise of the Russian economy.

    The US astronauts who went on Mir, were ignored by NASA and treated an un-people, receiving little publicity in the US. When the astronaut needed to talk to a US person about a problem that the Russians were hiding, they would get "oh we talked to the Russians and they said there was no problem". The caused great rage and at least one of the astronauts left the program because of it. Question for all you cognescenti: when and where did Shannon Lucid go into space [1]? (I certainly didn't know.)

The conversations of the cosmonauts are used word for word and you feel like you are there on Mir. It's not till you get to credits at the end of the book that you find that an enthusiast in Europe listened to the up and down links of the Russian space program for 20yrs and transcribed it all into English.

Zimmerman seems to have managed to talk to many of the principals involved in the space program and tied many loose ends together. It's hard to imagine how he found and gained the confidence of these people, and wrote the book in the time he did. He has an explanation for the story we all heard early in the space program, that a Russian astronaut had died in space before Gagarin was sent up. People had heard a Russian astronaut talking from space, who never appeared on earth. In the west, it was assumed he died in space or on re-entry. Zimmerman found that the Russians had done several dry runs before launching Gararin, where a tape recorder had taken the role of the cosmonaut - the voice everyone heard was the tape recorder.

For more about the (unmanned) Russian space program, here is an extensive write-up on The Soviet Exploration of Venus by Don P. Mitchell.

I posted an earlier version of this review to the Barnes and Noble website on 16 Nov 2003.

3. Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, the first manned flight to another world

This trip was well covered in the western media and I can still remember the dramatic reading from Genesis on that Christmas Eve as the astronauts circled the Moon.

This book covers all the details in true Zimmerman style. After reading Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" I thought astronauts were lucky not to have killed themselves, racing their cars, before they ever got into space. In contrast, the crew of Apollo 8 were a straight set of guys, who married their high school sweethearts and attended the local church (religiously).

Zimmerman tells us how and who were involved in the reading of the passage of Genesis. He also poured through transcripts and original film from the astronaut's cameras, to find out why both Frank Borman and Bill Anders thought they took the famous coloured picture of Earthrise from the Moon and resolved the matter to the satisfaction of both astronauts.

[1] She spent 188 days on Mir in 1996 and holds the non-Russian record for time in space. She described her time in space as like being in a caravan on a beach holiday when it was raining and you couldn't go outside.

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